As a change from the usual fare of economics and finance, I recently read Jürgen Trimborn’s biography Leni Riefenstahl: A Life about Hitler’s favourite film-maker, Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl was a highly controversial figure. Her films Triumph des Willen, chronicling the 1935 Nazi party rally in Nürnberg and Olympia, documenting the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin were critically acclaimed around the world, but also served as propaganda for the Third Reich.
After the war, Riefenstahl was acquitted in de-Nazification trials, but for some years struggled to shake the taint of her association with Hitler and his regime. Over time she found much of the world shifting its attitudes towards her. As Trimborn observes:
The older she became, the more pronounced was the phenomenon of Riefenstahl’s “promotion to the status of a cultural monument,” as Susan Sontag described it in 1974. The critical disputes surrounding her receded further and further into the background, replaced by an enthusiastic, or at least respectful, tribute to Riefenstahl’s ceaseless vitality.
This vitality really was extraordinary. At the age of 71, she lied about her age, claiming to be twenty years younger in order to take a scuba-diving course and from there spent decades developing a new career as an underwater photographer. She died in 2003 at the age of 101.
But Trimborn argues that this fascination with Riefenstahl’s vitality was a distraction from the complexities of Riefenstahl’s character. His biography portrays a brilliant, driven woman who was also a narcissist and a liar, who spent most of her life denying her complicity with the Nazis. For instance, she spent the later years of the war working on a fiction feature, Tiefland. The exigencies of war stymied her plan to film in Spain, so instead she made use of gypsies from Nazi labour camps as extras. She later claimed to have seen her cast fit and well after the war, but later eyewitness testimony not only revealed that many had ended up in concentration camps like Dachau, but that Riefenstahl knew only too well what was happening.
Reading about Leni Riefenstahl is a good recipe for cognitive dissonance: the contradictions are hard to reconcile. Her documentaries were stylistically revolutionary, redefining the genre, and yet the content and the context are appalling. She was a gifted artists, but in many ways highly objectionable. But, who said the real world was simple?